The transition to online school has not been easy for anyone. Our necks and eyes all hurt, we’re all confused by Canvas layouts, and, perhaps most importantly, classroom etiquette has completely changed. Where before teachers would wait for hands to go up and call on one of the people attached, they now plead desperately, “unmute yourselves!” Due to the teacher’s need for participation, in many classrooms the first to speak, regardless of any permission or indication of intent, is the one who offers their opinion or answers the question. In my rather exasperating experience, that person is usually a boy.
I kept track of who was speaking in all of my academic classes over Sept. 29-30, and boys spoke an average of 14% more than girls, with the ratio of boys to girls in the class having little effect. Pay attention to it in your classes, and I’m almost positive that unless your class has a large majority of female students, you’ll observe the same. (Though, if you’re a girl, I’m sure you’ve already noticed.)
Needless to say, this has been really frustrating! Every class discussion, especially in the first month, I found myself sitting there with my hand raised for long periods of time without getting to contribute. Each time I did speak without being called on, I felt as if I had broken some unwritten rule, or as if I failed some test I didn’t realize I was taking. It was only after I talked to some of my (female) friends about this that I recognized I wasn’t the problem. Merely unmuting oneself to offer opinions or questions, regardless of whether they were solicited, contradicts the instincts drilled into those who were socialized as girls from an early age.
Essentially, the prioritization of those who call out leads to the gender divide in Zoom discussion: a study conducted by American University found that male students are more likely to speak in a class discussion, even if they are not called on or they know less about the subject than other students. Since this is already the case in the classroom, and Zoom is merely exacerbating the demand for those calling out, male students are much more likely than female students to speak spontaneously in online class.
Additionally, those socialized as feminine are taught from an early age not to interrupt others. A study conducted by Slate Magazine on children between the ages of 3 and 7 found that young boys interrupt three times as much as girls, and the more boys in a group, the less likely a girl is to interrupt. Continuing this trend, female students are less likely to interrupt, and more likely to be interrupted before they finish speaking. This has to do with the still-prevailing view that in order to be feminine, a woman must capitulate to any men present, whether or not the female student is thinking consciously about that. On Zoom, where teachers are determined to keep the conversation going to offset slower online pacing, the first one to talk is the one to answer unless there’s a tie and the second person interrupts them soon enough, and these societal norms mean that male students prevail.
Another factor in female students missing their chance to answer is that women are more likely than men to think that they are incorrect. A Cornell study conducted on college students found that female students tend to rate their performance lower than both the average and what they deserve on a task they perceive as male-dominated, whereas male students rate their performance as above average. Additionally, a Harvard study found that women are more likely to be chastised for making a mistake in a field perceived as male-oriented. Considering that a Psychological Science study found that most classes, especially STEM classes, are seen by high school and college students as male-dominated, this can deter a female student’s confidence and make her less likely to answer a question. Combine this with split-second decisions, the need to call out, and even the decisive task of unmuting oneself, and by the time the female student feels confident enough to answer, a male student has already done so, and the cycle begins again.
So what can we, as a community creating the culture we want, do about this? Well, first, we can all be aware of how this is affecting our classes. . If you’re a girl, I know it’s hard, but we have to try to overcome the societal norm to stay quiet. I’m challenging myself to be less afraid to be wrong, and if I unmute myself at the same time as a boy, I will still assert that I want to answer too. If you’re a boy and you’ve noticed that you and your male friends have been answering every question, maybe hang back and make sure the conversation is balanced (though a study in Applied Psycholinguistics has shown that male students perceive female students as dominating a conversation when the female students are only speaking 1/3 of the time) If you’re a teacher, please make sure the girls in your class are talking as much as the boys! Don’t assume that because a girl doesn’t unmute first, she doesn’t know the answer. Let’s bring everyone to the same level of engagement, so we can make this a productive school year for all.